Sunday, December 4, 2016

Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016 at the Whitney Museum of American Art

“Line Describing a Cone” (1973) by Anthony McCall. Photo credit Jake Naughton for The New York Times.
A few years ago, while working at a used bookstore, someone sold us a DVD copy of By Brakhage. I vaguely knew of Stan Brakhage and his work, so I stashed the anthology in the back, bought it on my break, and raced home after work to watch it. After about twenty minutes, my excitement had faded and I was left feeling underwhelmed. The issue wasn’t the films themselves but rather the setting. Watching experiment film on a boxy 27-inch TV from the 1990s in your parents’ basement isn’t the most ideal set-up. The Whitney is the appropriate environment for this kind of avant-garde and experimental film.

With close to forty artists in Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016, selecting a few highlights isn’t easy, but Oskar Fischinger’s “Raumlichtkunst (Space Light Art)” (1926, restored 2012) is definitely one that shouldn’t be missed. This three-channel projection of  colorful shapes and images set to music was one of the earliest multimedia installations of abstract art and predates Disney’s Fantasia–which Fischinger did concept drawings for shortly after leaving Germany for Hollywood in 1936. Another powerful piece is Anthony McCall’s “Line Describing a Cone” (1973). Installed in a nearly pitch-black room, light from a projector slowly breaks down the physical space by eschewing an image and emphasizing that the work is pure light. Lasting ten minutes, a circle is drawn on the wall and a cone becomes visible in the smoky room extending from project to wall. Ben Coonley’s “Trading Futures” (2016) is a 3D video set inside of a cardboard geodesic dome. The ‘professor’ in this piece calls on the viewer to actively.look around and respond to certain commandsclose one eye, now the otherwhile discussing financial derivative trading. Also noteworthy are the works of Lynn Hershman Leeson (1966-2010), Terence Broad’s “Blade Runner Autoencoded” (2016), and iconic pieces like “Rose Hobart” (1936) by Joseph Cornell and “CROSSROADS” (1976) by Bruce Conner. 

The Whitney has transformed its fifth floor into a space devoted to charting a course through the twentieth century up to the present in order to explore arthouse cinema, experimental film, and digital video. Dreamlands is successful as an exhibition, but not every work is immersive. In some areas there is sound bleeding, others have distracting light from works across the hall, and some just don’t fit. That being said, many works do fully immerse the viewer; they can draw you in and keep your attention for twenty-plus minutes. Overall, Dreamlands is a huge success and proof that the Whitney is capable of almost anything.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

While Agnes Martin’s retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum is a testament to her legacy, the show also operates as a subtle celebration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of the museum. Portions of the exhibition originate from the Tate Modern in London's retrospective; the show then traveled around the world, making stops at LACMA and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf before reaching the Guggenheim. But because Martin’s work relies so heavily on the physical space of the viewer, the Guggenheim’s architecture has truly elevated her work to the level of a spiritual encounter.

Walking up the ramp, the spectator grows with Martin. The passage of time is articulated through the swirl of the museum, as the oldest works are located at the bottom of the rotunda and the rest of her oeuvre are positioned in chronological order. The shape of the Guggenheim dictates the experience of Martin’s work and explicitly makes evident the evolution of her artistic processes, conceptual intentions, and emotional state.

Central to her work lies the grid: a motif which conveys control as well a sense of objectivity and universality through its derivation from mathematics. The grid exists in a vacuum and is decontextualized from cultural ideals; therefore, it is transcends time. Her non-representational body of work allows for an exploration in color and abstraction while remaining impervious to narrative. Yet, in paintings of horizontal and vertical bands, it is the simple mistake that keeps Martin’s work human. The imperfections that exist in her hand drawn lines maintain a sense of life and approachability- the work is not an imitation of perfection, but a mystical articulation of spirituality and consciousness.Experiencing one of Martin’s works in an architecturally unique space is a meditative practice, one that roots the viewer into their surroundings while simultaneously having the potential to overwhelm with indiscernible emotions.

Agnes Martin, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 7, 2016–January 11, 2017. Photo: David Heald

At the Jewish Museum's 'Take Me (I'm Yours)' Exhibit, An Interesting Concept Falls Flat

At its core, 'Take Me (I'm Yours)', the newest exhibit at the Jewish Museum, is about production and consumption. The concept that this group show hinges on is simple: each piece is made up of one or more mass produced objects, any of which the viewer is invited to take a piece of. Each museum-goer is presented with a small bag to carry the pieces home, turning the gallery space into a free gift shop of sorts.

The concept itself is an interesting one. This idea subverts the standard relationship between a viewer and a piece of art, and provides a much needed break in the fourth wall of the gallery space. However, many of these artists didn't make much of an effort to elevate their pieces beyond little trinkets for the taking. 

One table featured an array of open cardboard boxes, each of which held a stack of xeroxed pictures of a cloudy sky. This piece was one of the few that actually utilized the potential of this show's concept. Over time as people took paper from the array of xeroxes, each paper stack changed height, turning the whole table into a morphing, asymmetrical, 3D time based composition. 

Even though there were some enjoyable parts of the show, (temporary tattoos and stencils by conceptual art legend Lawrence Weiner, a couple cool prints, free seltzer,) pretty much everything in the gallery save a couple pieces failed to transcend simple novelty. If more of the pieces had been pushed more ambitiously, beyond the bare minimum required to fulfill the concept, this show could have been very interesting. Unfortunately, there is little going on in this show beyond its gimmick.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry at the Met Breuer

It is extraordinary to be given a museum retrospective as a living artist, and after seeing Mastry, the Kerry James Marshall retrospective at the Met Breuer, I think he truly deserves it. With an array of paintings spanning portraiture, landscape, and tableaus, Marshall gives us the complexities of the history of African American identity in America. With the current state of American race relations, now more than ever it is imperative that we recognize the failings of the Western art historical canon to include people of color. This retrospective deftly creates space for black people in the canon, making the invisible finally visible.

One of the earliest works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, is a small and almost completely flat self portrait; the black paint is a void with two white eyes and teeth almost jettisoning off the picture plane. It is a powerful, haunting portrait that presses us to think about what we think of as blackness, because it shows us a caricature (alluding to white minstrels who donned blackface in the 19th century) of blackness. 

School of Beauty, School of Culture
Acrylic on canvas
107 7/8 × 157 7/8 in

From this point on we see Marshall’s figures becoming more three-dimensional and modeled in the application of paint. He also scales up to his more recognizable monumental paintings. Past Times, 1997 is an idyllic scene of aristocrats enjoying a picnic in the park, playing games and riding in boats on a pleasant lake. The pastoral scene directly references the rococo, but reinventing it for the modern viewer; to show black people as the aristocratic elite enjoying themselves expands art history.

School of Beauty, School of Culture, directly references many other art historical traditions as well. In this painting, a beauty school comes to life with many different characters in a colorful interior scene. Marshall can be seen in the mirror in the back of the painting but obscured by the flash of his camera, a reference to Velázquez’s Las Meninas. The anamorphic image of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is a direct reference to the anamorphic skull at the bottom of Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors. Many other art historical tropes are stitched together in this painting of a recognizable part of African American life, so that it seems that art history has been molded to finally depict the black experience.

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry

On view until January 29th, 2017
The Met Breuer
945 Madison Ave.

"Mastry" by Kerry James Marshall

Kerry James Marshall
Mastry, October 25, 2016 - January 29, 2017, The Met Breuer

Mastry by Kerry James Marshall is a two floor exhibit experience at the Met Breuer. It displays a wide collection of Marshall's large scale paintings that are mural like, and make up his largest show to date in his thirty-five-year career. Marshall's large-scale paintings engage the viewer completely in his narratives which represent black culture and society in western life. His work speaks to the lack of African American presence in western art.

Marshall combines the styles of renaissance artist to make his paintings. The pieces often have a contrasting feeling between the foreground and background. The background gives a feeling of going into deep space while the figures right up front appear more two-dimensional. Even though his work is influenced by renaissance artists and earlier, Marshall's pieces are still highly abstract with layered figures and objects. The pieces also speak to the muralist tradition and he uses comics to address his point of speaking for the seemingly invisible by telling their stories. Overall, the exhibit displays an array of thought through narrative paintings that give voice to the historical happenings of the African American community that Marshall was alive to experience and be inspired by.